Sunday, February 26, 2023

Shi Guorui & The Camera Obscura

A few weeks ago, we went down to the Albuquerque Museum to catch the last days of an exhibition called "Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration".

Here I am focusing on the last word of the show’s title “Inspiration”. One of the contemporary artists included in the exhibition was Shi Guorui, a Chinese American artist who uses a camera obscura to create very large images. The name of this show within a show is “Ab/sense-Pre/Sense”. Shi’s images in this case were based on the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole (1801-1848), founder of The Hudson River School.

The camera obscura was the forerunner of the cameras we know today. The earliest known reference was provided by a Chinese philosopher called Mo-tzu (or Mozi) in 400BC. He noted that light from an illuminated object that passed through a pinhole into a dark room created an inverted image of the original object. Later on, the concept was recreated using a box or tent as housing.

Shi Guorui was photographed by Nathan Bajar for The New York Times, building his camera obscura out of a tent in a forest near Kaaterskill Falls in the Hudson River Valley. The artist spent 34 hours in that tent to get his time lapse photos of the falls.

Shi moved to Catskill, New York from Beijing in 2014 when he was in his late 40’s. Thomas Cole was one of the few Western artists he had been allowed to study at his art school and he became fascinated with Cole’s landscapes. He had an “eye” similar to Cole’s in their shared love of nature. For this exhibition Shi retraced Cole’s steps through the Hudson Valley to capture those similar images, literally in a different light.

Shi travelled all over this country to see as many of Cole’s landscapes as possible and then back to Catskill to re-capture those images in an ancient medium. Hanging huge sheets of light sensitive photographic paper to absorb the images projected over many hours through his large-scale camera obscura, he creates haunting black and white landscapes. According to the posting in the museum Shi used the camera obscura to slow things down in reaction to the frenetic pace of life in China and, of course, what we see in cities here as well.

What was a surprise to me was that Cole himself used a small camera obscura to frame the landscape and define the composition of his paintings; an iPhone would have saved him a lot of work!

Both Cole and Shi Gourui put into words their effort to convey something beyond the visual record: "Years! They are naught to [a mountain], and centuries and centuries roll by harmlessly." - Thomas Cole, Journal July 8, 1837

"Time flies and things change. All the way through history, natural scenery and constructions remain, while relevant people disappear. ... Living in the present, how can we recapture and reproduce historical thoughts, opinions, feelings, or memories by means of photography? And what new experiences and feelings can we come up with during the process of recapture and reproduction?" -Shi Guoru

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